The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy - Defence Committee Contents

Written evidence from Brian K Sargeant and Frank James


This submission provides a view that the SDSR decision relating to cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme was taken in haste without the full implications being known and was probably based on misleading or incorrect information.

Following the decision, the subsequent scrapping of the aircraft was determinedly progressed by the Government and MoD, ignoring all calls from many sources for disposal to be suspended to allow for the SDSR decision to be reviewed in detail by the Defence Committee before the aircraft were scrapped.

The submission identifies that there are indeed significant capability gaps resulting from cancellation of MRA4, that misleading and incorrect information continues to be used and that the real budget impacts are still undefined.

Most importantly, the submission proposes that a decision of such magnitude was pushed through by the Government without there being any opportunity for bodies to exercise their democratic rights for reconsideration and get a proper parliamentary review and informed conclusion.


We write as retired members of the Nimrod MRA4 Project Team, one of us having been employed in the UK aircraft industry for over fifty years, of which nine years were involved on the Nimrod MRA4 project at BAE Systems as a consultant engineer, and the other having served with the RAF as Mission Crew on Shackleton and Nimrod MR1 and MR2, and more recently having been employed by BAE Systems as a member of the Trials Team on MRA4. We are both now retired and therefore the information provided should be considered as personal views from members of the public. However, having been the focus of a public lobbying campaign, we have become a conduit for feedback from a host of very expert and knowledgeable people within both the industrial and user communities. Therefore, the information provided is based on our own experience plus that from informed sources.


Our lobbying campaign should be well known to the committee as over the course of Christmas and January we communicated on a number of occasions with the Defence Committee, via the Chairman with copies to all members. We also communicated with many MPs in the House of Commons. Prior to this exercise, in the immediate aftermath of the SDSR announcement, we and our colleagues had been in touch with our various constituency MPs and this continued over Christmas. Throughout this time our wish was to exercise our democratic rights and get a proper parliamentary review of what was clearly a hasty and ill-considered decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 programme. In contrast to other governmental decisions (eg student fees, health service reforms, tax changes) there seemed to be no means whereby a decision of this magnitude, namely to scrap £4 billion of taxpayer assets, could be revisited in a cool, calm and collected way. Even over the second half of January with the imminent destruction of the Nimrod airframes and therefore considerable urgency, there seemed to be something missing in the democratic process. Feedback from the Senior Committee Assistant of the Defence Committee indicated the powerlessness of the Committee in being able to influence events. Noting that the Defence Committee reserved its right in its First SDSR Report of September to challenge the conclusions of the SDSR (recommendation 31), and noting that the Government in its Response welcomed this feedback, it seems bizarre that such an irreversible action as the destruction of aircraft could take place without the Committee having had a chance to provide this feedback.[176] We believe this is a serious issue that the Committee should consider in its report.


Now that destruction of the aircraft has actually gone ahead, we believe that this does leave a significant gap in the capabilities of our nation to defend its substantial maritime interests. Not only that, we have lost what would have been the most flexible and capable of our ISTAR assets at a time when this capability is considered to be of critical importance. We believe that the various responses given to questions in the House have been simplistic in the extreme and the reasoning behind our opinion is given in Appendix 1. In summary alternative assets do not have the flexibility and speed of response of Nimrod and use of those alternative assets will clearly take them away from their primary role. It will cost millions extra to have platforms such as C-130 Hercules, Merlin and Type 23 attempting to perform the Nimrod role, but at a much lower efficiency. One of us clearly remembers an occasion as duty officer at RAF Kinloss when three Nimrods were dispatched to Cyprus at three hours notice and subsequently were instrumental in the interception of arms being smuggled from a Middle East country. We believe therefore that the SDSR paid scant regard to the capability gaps that would emerge from cancellation of the aircraft.


We firmly believe the SDSR decision to not bring Nimrod MRA4 into service was made without a full appreciation of the implications and was probably based on misleading or incorrect information about the aircraft. It was evident during our campaign that many MPs were well aware of the problems associated with the MRA4 project but there was no appreciation or understanding of the real value and capabilities of the world class aircraft that was available and which have now been destroyed.

It was also of concern to us that the final days of the media storm over the destruction of the aircraft were accompanied by a considerable degree of misinformation. We would like to clarify therefore that the design and development flight test programme utilising three aircraft and comprising 630 flights over 1,900 flying hours had indeed been completed and that two production aircraft had been flown of which one had been handed over to the RAF. It is conceded that some remaining issues had been found in putting the final pieces into the certification and Release to Service process, but these were well in hand and would have been quickly resolved to enable the aircraft to enter service as planned. In particular the uninsulated anti-ice pipes mentioned in the House of Commons written answer 38,920 on 10 February would have been easy to modify to everyone's satisfaction.[177] The airworthiness need for modification was in itself actually extremely debatable. Furthermore the "several hundred design non-compliances" were in most cases of extreme triviality and related to legacy design.


Apart from the scandalous waste of £4 billion of taxpayers' money by the scrapping of the MRA4 aircraft, the stated estimated savings of £2 billion over ten years by not bringing MRA4 into service have still not been detailed. We have seen no estimate of what the additional cost will be for alternative assets, or what the total cancellation costs for the project will be. Further, we suspect that the government and MoD are already beginning to realise the major capability gap it has created and this will lead to the need for funding at the earliest possible time for a new manned maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which will probably be obtained from America, which would be absolutely ironic when the government had earlier destroyed the most advanced maritime reconnaissance aircraft in the world.

Hence, we believe that the jury is still out as to whether the prescriptions of the SDSR decisions with regards to the cancellation of MRA4 will be beneficial in allowing MoD to balance its budget in the short term and in the medium term we believe the SDSR decision will prove to make no economic sense at all.


SerRole TaskPossible Alternative ContextShortcomings

(Alternatives v MRA4)



Military Surveillance

RN ships, submarines and helicopters.

In addition to the requirement to monitor/police/interdict civilian vessels in and around UK waters, the UK requires to monitor foreign military maritime activity in our area of interest. This ranges from patrol to confirm the lack of a foreign presence, through tracking specific vessels through our area of interest to, in extremis, taking direct action against a vessel engaged in activity that is contrary to our security
Ships cannot react as quickly as fixed-wing aircraft. Hence, if an "area of interest" was identified eg 500 miles offshore, a ship in harbour, which reacts immediately, would need roughly a day to get close enough to the scene to start having an effect. A Nimrod would need about an hour.

Ships' above water sensors cannot detect or classify "targets" at anything like the range achievable by Nimrod. Whilst their helicopters extend these detection ranges, they do not, in their turn, have the geographic range to take that advantage far from their mother ships, they do not have the extensive range of sensors, nor do they have the airspeed to cover greater distances quickly. The net result of these factors is a reduction in the area that can be credibly searched and, thus to the security of any such search. If this type of operation led to a military engagement, then the RN would always favour utilising off-board weapons, rather than depleting their on-board, hard to replenish, ordnance. The RN has always been involved in such activities, but in addition to Nimrod.

To take on the whole task would have additional costs in both provision of the assets and over the lifetimes of the assets thus employed.


EEZ Patrol

DEFRA & SFPA Chartered aircraft, RN & SFPA patrol vessels
The Fisheries monitoring and protection role was, during the 1980s, removed from the Nimrod fleet in favour of (at the time) MAFF- and DAFF-run patrols. This is now the responsibility of DEFRA and SFPA and runs perfectly adequately. Until March 2010, the relatively short-range aircraft employed could always rely on the support of "rapid-response" from Nimrod MR2s. If, as is likely, DEFRA & SFPA budgets are being reduced in line with other Government Departments and Agencies, then there will be a hole in this vital cover.


Border Patrol

RN patrol vessels, chartered aircraft
Whilst not a "standing task", the Nimrod force always stood prepared to support the UK Border Agency in surveillance and interdiction of illicit maritime routes into the UK (eg for drugs, firearms, people etc.). The Nimrod's sensor and communication suites make it an invaluable asset in such operations. Similar sensors and communications are carried in RN vessels, but they suffer from the same restrictions as outlined at (1) above.


Maritime Counter Terrorism

RN Ships and Helicopters
The details of the tasks that make up this role are, naturally, highly classified. These tasks require a combination of speed of reaction, endurance/persistence, sensor performance, command & control ability, and communications capabilities that only Nimrod possesses in full. Other platforms can deliver elements of the capabilities, but not in a single package.


Detection/Tracking of non-UK submarines

RN Ships, Submarines and Helicopters
As for foreign military surface vessels, the UK has a need to detect, track and, if necessary, deter incursion by foreign submarines All aspects of ASW are highly classified, and are regularly carried out by the RN. However, as (1) above, they have always been augmented by Nimrod, with each element of the "team" playing to its strengths. The Nimrod brings flexibility, speed of reaction, covertness, all-weather ability, range, endurance (hence area coverage) as well as not representing a drain on the RN's organic resources.

Whilst the surface navy and submarine force are more than able to conduct every element of the task, again as (1) it will take considerably more of their resources to do so without Nimrod support.


Support to UK submarines
UK submarines need elements of support from other units in order effectively to do their jobs


Top cover for SAR HelicoptersChartered/Coastguard aircraft SAR Helicopters, if operating at any significant distance from land, will be safer and more effective if they have someone "watching over", assisting with incident location, navigation and comms relay. Once again, the Nimrod offers the full package of support in a single entity. Other airborne platforms can, individually, offer elements of the package, but not in a single unit. Again, to do so will use more of their resources (eg flying hours, fuel, standby commitment etc.) than may have been established.


Incident Co-ordination

Chartered/Coastguard aircraft, Helicopters, Ships, Rigs, Land-based centres
There are two aspects to this task, being able to observe the whole scene, and being able to communicate with all the participants Accidents such as the Piper Alpha disaster brought this task to the forefront of the LRMPA fleet's collective minds. Nimrod is uniquely equipped to survey, monitor and, in large part, control the scene, whilst at the same time being able to co-ordinate the participants (air and surface) and report back to the controlling authority. Once again, no other single unit has a matching capability.


Area Search

C-130 and other fixed wing

Locate wreckage/Survivors
Nimrod on board sensors allow it to uniquely search huge areas of ocean or land to locate wreckage or survivors quickly. No other UK asset is similarly capable. The aircraft has specific crew lookout positions manned by trained aircrew. No other UK asset is similarly fitted.


Direct Assistance

Ships, Helicopters, other fixed-wing

Rescue of survivors
Whilst Nimrod cannot physically lift survivors, it can carry a large number of specifically designed Rescue Apparatus sets and/ or multi seat dinghies in its weapons bay. Dinghies can be carried by C-130-type aircraft, but the unique ASR set, which contains a multi-seat dinghy as well as other survival aids, is not an option for anything other than Nimrod.



Oceanographic Survey

Oceanographic, geo-magnetic and meteorological data gathering are important precursors for many of the civil and military advances made by our scientific communities. Whilst these have never been core tasks for Nimrod, they have been undertaken continuously over the entire life of the aircraft. The ability to deploy sensors into the atmosphere or ocean, to collect the output data and, in some cases to analyse that data, can provide invaluable support to researchers and forecasters.


Support to UK vessels

Ships, other fixed-wing
When the RN or the UK merchant fleet are operating far from land, they may require external support ranging from mail and spares delivery to assistance with a specific task Spares/Mail drops at range could easily be achieved by C-130-type aircraft, but little if any assistance could be rendered in any other scenario

It should be noted that these 12 tasks, under these 4 broad role definitions are not an exhaustive list of all possible activities. However they cover what might be thought of as the "core" tasks. In several cases, more than one of these tasks is able to be performed simultaneously by Nimrod, and all 12 are capabilities that each aircraft possesses without modification, addition or special preparation. Moreover, up until March 2010, there existed a large number of crews who were fully trained, current and thus immediately available for every task listed.

176   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345 Back

177   HC Deb, 10 February 2011, cols 384w-385w Back

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Prepared 3 August 2011